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Cheick, an immigrant student from Mali, was told—illegally—that he had to leave high school and transfer to a high school equivalency program.

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Press Releases

11.17.2020 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to the possibility of a systemwide shutdown of New York City’s schools:

Educating children is one of the most essential services the City provides, and the Mayor should do everything possible to keep schools open while keeping school communities safe.

As the Mayor has noted, nothing can adequately replace in-person instruction. Remote learning has been disastrous for many students, including many students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students experiencing homelessness. With a COVID-19 positivity rate well below the 9% threshold set by the State for school closures, and with bars, gyms, and indoor dining continuing to operate, the City should reexamine the need to close schools systemwide and should instead continue using a more targeted approach to closing individual schools when necessary.

While most students are only attending school on certain days each week, we are working with some families whose children with significant disabilities are attending school every day. After months of remote learning, these children are finally starting to make progress. And we continue to hear from families that they want more in-person instruction because remote learning does not work for their children. The Mayor must consider the enormous impact on these students – and the disruption to children and families – of a sudden systemwide shutdown.

While the City should do all it can to avoid a systemwide shutdown of schools, here are steps the City should take as it prepares for the possibility of closing schools:

  • The City should ensure that students with disabilities, students who are homeless or in foster care, and English Language Learners can continue to have the option of in-person instructional support, including access to in-person services for students with disabilities.
  • The City should expedite the delivery of iPads and significantly increase tech support. Tens of thousands of students are still waiting to get an iPad from the City, and others can’t get their iPads to work. Many students in shelter still can’t use their iPads because their shelters don’t have Wi-Fi or sufficient cellular reception. Getting tech support from the DOE can take weeks or months.
  • The City should establish a transition period prior to closure and ensure that schools have sufficient time to create printed materials for students and get them to students’ homes. Asking parents to rush to schools to pick up materials the afternoon before schools close is not feasible for many families and will leave behind students from historically marginalized communities. 
  • The City should develop and implement strategies to improve online learning.
  • The City should communicate with families in their language and not rely on e-mails written in English to let families know what is happening and how to get help. The City should ensure families without e-mail access have a way of reaching school staff when schools are closed by using, for example, a call forwarding system.
  • The City should expand Learning Bridges sites or other child care programs and must ensure these programs are prepared to serve all students, including students with disabilities.

The City should also provide another chance for parents to opt into blended learning this year. Having the opt-in period take place while the Mayor was warning of a possible systemwide school shutdown discouraged some parents from opting in even though remote learning has been difficult for their children.

The City must fight back against COVID-19 and avoid a repeat of the spring. But the Mayor noted today that schools have been “incredibly safe.” The City should avoid a system-wide closure unless absolutely necessary after exploring all possible alternatives. Children have already lost months of educational time they can never get back. Schools should be one of the last places to close—not the first.

Read the statement [PDF]

11.05.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) issued the following response to the release of the New York City Department of Education (DOE)’s suspension data report for the 2019-20 school year: 

The new suspension data released on Tuesday show that New York City has continued to make progress in its efforts to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline and keep students in the classroom where they belong. While much of the decline in the raw number of suspensions issued in the 2019-20 school year is attributable to the three-month closure of school buildings due to COVID-19, the fact that suspensions were down 12.6%, relative to 2018-19, prior to the transition to remote learning suggests that recent changes to the discipline code and investments in restorative justice, mental health supports, and social-emotional learning are having a positive impact. 

The data also reflect modest improvements with respect to racial disparities in school discipline. In 2019-20, over half (50.7%) of superintendent’s (long-term) suspensions, along with 41.0% of principal’s suspensions, went to Black students, who comprised only 21.6% of the public school population (not including charter schools). While the City clearly has much work left to do to address these substantial disparities—which result in students losing valuable instructional time—there are glimmers of progress in this year’s report. In 2018-19, Black students received 52.0% of superintendent’s suspensions and 42.1% of principal’s suspensions; overall, the proportion of suspensions issued to Black students has dropped by 6.3 percentage points over the past four years (43.3% of all suspensions in 2019-20 went to Black students, compared to 49.6% in 2015-16). 

Unfortunately, the City has failed to make similar progress with respect to addressing disparities by disability status and is instead trending in the wrong direction. Students with disabilities—who are about 20% of the student population—received 44.8% of long-term suspensions and 39.1% of principal’s suspensions in 2019-20, compared to 43.0% and 38.5%, respectively, the prior year. The proportion of all suspensions going to students with special education needs has risen 1.9 percentage points (from 38.6% to 40.5%) since 2015-16.

“While the City has made notable progress in reducing the number of suspensions, Black students and students with disabilities continue to be ousted from their classrooms at alarmingly high rates,” said Dawn Yuster, Director of AFC’s School Justice Project. “Given the trauma so many of our young people have experienced in recent months, it is more urgent than ever that the DOE prioritize providing effective behavioral and mental health supports for students of color and students with disabilities. It is essential that students receive the social-emotional support they need to be successful this year—and are not excluded from their school communities during these already-challenging times.”

View statement as a PDF

11.03.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) issued the following response to the release of the New York City Department of Education (DOE)’s special education data report for the 2019-20 school year: 

While the numbers released today are troubling on their own—31,678 New York City students did not fully receive their mandated special education instruction last year—they vastly understate the true extent of unmet need stemming from the pandemic. For example, a student who lost weeks of instructional time because they lacked needed technology for remote learning would still be considered “fully” served for purposes of this report if they had been in a special education class prior to the closure of school buildings, as would a student who received little or no live instruction from a teacher from March through June. The data also do not capture the significant regression many students experienced because their special education supports simply did not translate online.

The data released today also reflect a worrisome 26.6% decline in the number of initial referrals for special education evaluation, which suggests that concerns about students’ progress were put on hold in light of COVID-19. As the DOE did not conduct any psycho-educational evaluations, either remotely or in person, this past spring, there was also a significant spike in the proportion of cases still open at the end of June (11.2% of all initial referrals in 2019-20, not including cases awaiting parental consent, compared to 7.7% the previous year). Many of these 1,800 students with open cases started the new school year still waiting for additional supports to be put in place to help them learn. 

In addition, the proportion of cases that were simply closed without an IEP meeting being held at all increased from 14.9% in 2018-19 to 21.4% in 2019-20. Since March, AFC has heard from multiple families who were incorrectly told that they could not move forward with the special education process because of COVID-19 and their child’s case would be closed without an evaluation—even though the student was struggling and clearly in need of special education services. The DOE very recently began offering face-to-face assessments to a limited number of students, but there is nevertheless a backlog that must be addressed in order to ensure that students have the support they need to make progress during remote and blended learning.

“Despite the substantial challenges brought by the pandemic, the City still has a responsibility to provide all children with disabilities with an appropriate education,” said Kim Sweet, AFC’s Executive Director. 

To move forward from here, the DOE should:

  • Give parents access to their children’s special education records online, so they have real-time information about what is and is not being provided; 
  • Develop a system to ensure that students receive the compensatory services they need to make up for what has been missed; and 
  • Prioritize in-person instruction and related services for all students with disabilities whose families want that option. 

Ms. Sweet added, “Prior to the pandemic, the DOE was making important progress toward improving special education in New York City, and it will take commitment and resources to get that work back on track. The City must redouble its efforts to ensure that no student with a disability falls through the cracks, even during these challenging times.”

View statement as a PDF

09.16.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York joins 30 organizations in calling on Mayor de Blasio to address the urgent educational needs of students who are homeless as the school year begins.  We are urging the City to develop a coordinated interagency plan and designate a point person to work across agencies to ensure that every student who is homeless can participate in learning this year.

The urgent unresolved issues that the City must address include the following concerns:

Although the City is expecting students to learn remotely from two to five days per week, there are city shelters where no children have access to online learning due to lack of connectivity and other shelters where connectivity is limited.  While we appreciate that the City prioritized distributing iPads with free cellular data to students living in shelters, the iPads do not work in some shelters because they do not have adequate cellular reception or WiFi.

Under city policy, students under 18 cannot remain in shelter units without a parent, but there is no child care plan for days of remote learning when parents need to work.  While we are pleased that Learning Bridges will give priority to students who are homeless, among other groups of students, we understand the programs will have very limited capacity and that seats are open only to students through 8th grade.

Many families in shelter have not yet received information about bus service despite the legal obligation to provide transportation to students who are homeless.

Although the City oversees the shelters where thousands of students live, the City has done little work to address the barriers that students and families who are homeless faced in accessing remote learning in the spring, and shelter providers have not received the resources or information needed to effectively support students in accessing education.

We are confident these issues are solvable if only the City would task someone with working across agencies to tackle them. Over the past six years, this Administration has brought increased attention and resources to improving the education of students who are homeless. At a time when students who are homeless have already experienced significant learning loss and trauma, please do not leave these students behind. 

Read the letter [PDF]

09.01.2020 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to Mayor de Blasio’s announcement delaying the first day of school: 

With so many unanswered questions about the reopening of school buildings, the City needs to use this additional time to develop robust plans for supporting students in the year ahead, particularly the students with the greatest needs. Remote learning was disastrous for many students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students experiencing homelessness this past spring; given that all students will continue to learn remotely at least some of the time for the foreseeable future, the DOE must develop and implement strategies to improve online instruction. Also, the transition to a hybrid model poses a slew of new challenges that have yet to be addressed. For example:

  • Approximately 50,000 students with disabilities, along with students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care, have a legal right to transportation, but the City has still not finalized any bus contracts. Families of these students need to know how their children will get to school, and many cannot front the cost of transportation or send their children alone on the subway if busing is not in place by the first day of class.
  • The City must ensure all students have the technology they need; distributing iPads is just the first step. Some family shelters, for example, have no WiFi and limited-to-nonexistent cellular reception, making it difficult for students in shelter to actually use those iPads to participate in remote learning.
  • The City must improve communication with families and ensure parents receive information in a language they can understand. When schools closed in March, many immigrant families and others were left in the dark. Parents cannot be expected to supervise and support their children’s remote instruction unless they have two-way communication with their schools.
  • Ensuring all students receive the support they need to learn under a blended model must be a top priority. It remains unclear how schools will staff integrated co-teaching (ICT) classes, schedule related service sessions, and otherwise ensure all students with disabilities receive their mandated special education instruction and services when they are only in the building 1-3 days per week. Similarly, the DOE has not put forward a meaningful plan for supporting English Language Learners, many of whom struggle to make progress in the absence of in-person supports, or a plan for connecting students with mental health services.

Read the statement

Special Education Recommendations cover image

08.18.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York released a set of essential recommendations for New York City’s school reopening plan, urging the Department of Education (DOE) to ensure that students with disabilities have the support they need when schools reopen, whether they are learning in a school building or remotely. 

The closure of school buildings last spring was especially difficult for New York City’s students with disabilities, who depend on schools for a range of specialized services and therapies—some of which can be quite challenging, if not impossible, to deliver remotely—in addition to academic instruction. Without consistent services and a structured school day, many fell behind their peers or lost skills that they had previously mastered. As the DOE prepares for the 2020-21 school year, it is critical that it address the barriers that prevented many students with disabilities from accessing remote learning last semester and put forward a plan for helping those who have fallen behind get caught up. 

The recommendations include urging the City to:

  • Offer full-time in-person instruction to all students in special education classes whose families want that option. By their very nature, these classes are already small in size and serve students with significant needs who may have particular difficulty engaging in remote learning.
  • Improve remote instruction and service delivery, including deploying educators already trained in evidence-based literacy instruction to provide small-group support to struggling readers on days they are learning remotely. The fact that students are no longer limited by the four walls of the school building offers a unique opportunity to match staff already trained in delivering evidence-based reading interventions with students who need extra help, regardless of where they happen to attend school.
  • Hold meetings with parents to develop an individualized plan for each student with a disability prior to the start of the school year. For students receiving in-person instruction part-time, schools should collaborate with families in their home language to determine what instruction and services should be provided during the student’s days in school, and what should be offered on the days they are learning remotely, in order to maximize use of their limited in-person time. These plans should also address the support parents need in order to help their child with remote learning. 
  • Provide robust behavioral and mental health supports to all students who need them, including those who have experienced COVID-related trauma or who need help readjusting to the school environment after months at home, refrain from police interventions, and limit exclusionary discipline.
  • Ensure all health and safety protocols take into account the unique needs of students with disabilities and provide supports and accommodations to those who have difficulty complying with new requirements, such as those around mask-wearing and social distancing. In addition, as schools look to repurpose every available space, they must be mindful of the needs of students and educators with physical disabilities, given that the majority of City school buildings are not fully accessible.
  • Provide compensatory services to make up for the instruction and services students missed while school buildings were closed.
  • Ensure the City’s new “Learning Bridges” child care programs provide support for students with disabilities and expand eligibility to include high school students with disabilities, some of whom are unable to stay alone while their parents work and require adult assistance in order to participate in remote learning.

“The pandemic created huge challenges for special education that require the City schools to respond with creative thinking, flexibility, and a commitment to collaborating with families to a greater extent than ever before,” said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of AFC. “We all need to do everything we can to make sure this pandemic does not leave students with disabilities even further behind.”

View the press release [PDF]
Read the recommendations [PDF]

07.08.2020 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza’s announcement of plans for reopening school buildings in September: 

Bringing 1.1 million children and more than 70,000 teachers safely back into the classroom in the midst of a pandemic is an enormously challenging task, but the plans Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza announced this morning lack the level of innovative thinking and cross-sector coordination that this moment requires. The split-schedule models presented today will worsen existing inequities, and they are just plain unworkable for many low-income families who cannot continue to stay home to watch and educate their children. For example:

  • This spring, many students—including students who have disabilities, are learning English as a new language, or are living in homeless shelters—struggled to participate meaningfully in remote learning and have fallen behind. Instead of receiving priority for in-person instruction this fall, however, most of these students will continue on remote instruction for two to four days each week.

  • The number of days of in-person instruction any individual student receives will depend on the school they happen to attend, which means that a child who has the disadvantage of attending an over-crowded school will receive less in-person instruction than a child who does not.  

  • Working families who have multiple children attending different schools—or maybe even different grades at the same school—will be forced into an impossible juggling act trying to manage multiple different part-time schedules in which different children attend school on different days, depending on the week. Schooling is inextricably intertwined with child care, and the two systems must be looked at together—not in isolation or as an afterthought. 

We know the City is facing unprecedented challenges, but for that very reason, our leaders need to break down siloes between agencies, departments, and schools and achieve a new level of collaboration with parents, businesses, and community partners so that students can receive the academic and social-emotional support they need to get back on track and parents can return to work.

Read the statement [PDF]

06.24.2020 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to new State guidance strongly encouraging school districts to provide over-age high school students the opportunity to return to school next year to finish meeting graduation requirements and to prepare for their transition out of high school:

We thank the Board of Regents and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) for strongly encouraging school districts to allow 21-year-old students to return for the 2020-21 school year to finish meeting graduation requirements and to receive the transition supports they need to move on to post-secondary opportunities. The guidance is an important first step towards ensuring that COVID-19 does not cause any student to lose their chance to earn a high school diploma or miss out on the support they need to transition out of high school.

We strongly urge the New York City Department of Education and districts across New York State to follow NYSED’s recommendation and provide all young people aging out without a diploma the opportunity to complete their education and prepare for life after high school. Districts should reach out to 21-year-old students and their families right away to let them know they can return. We agree with NYSED that “it would be a cruel injustice to pull the rug out from under these young adults who have worked so hard for so long,” and with the school year quickly coming to an end, this small group of students must know they will not be left behind.

Read the statement [PDF]

06.18.2020 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to recent statements by City Council Members and the President of the Teamsters Union Local 237 about removing police from schools:

We support City Council Members’ call to move responsibility for school safety to the DOE and urge the City to remove all NYPD officers from schools, shifting funding to education and social services that will support a new vision of safety in schools. We must ensure all students – especially Black students, who are disproportionately harmed – are truly safe and supported in school.

Before schools closed due to the pandemic, the NYPD – instead of clinically trained mental health professionals – had already intervened in more than 2,250 incidents involving students in emotional crisis, and even handcuffed some of these students. Black students were most disproportionately harmed; 58% of the students handcuffed were Black, even though Black students are only 25% of the total NYC public school population.

When students return to classrooms, they will need to have schools where they face social workers and therapists instead of police, where they receive mental health supports and services instead of handcuffs, and where they are welcomed to a restorative, trauma-informed setting instead of greeted by metal detectors.

Read the statement [PDF]

Extended Eligibility Policy Brief thumbnail06.15.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) released a new policy brief calling on the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to ensure that students aging out of school this month can return to high school next year so they do not lose their chance to earn a diploma. With the school year ending in just two weeks, NYSED must take action immediately to ensure that 21-year-old students who have struggled to access remote learning do not have their lives thrown entirely off course by the pandemic.

Students in New York State have the right to continue working towards a high school diploma until the end of the school year in which they turn 21. While more than 95% of students who graduate do so in four years, a small subset of students need five, six, or even seven years to complete the requirements for a diploma. Students who need more time to graduate are disproportionately students of color. In fact, Black students who graduate high school in New York State are seven times as likely as White students to need six years to do so, and Latinx graduates are 7.3 times as likely as their White peers to finish in their sixth year of high school.

Using data obtained from NYSED pursuant to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, the policy brief shows that there are approximately 3,700 students in New York State who will age out of school this year. Many of these students will graduate later this month, but those who have been unable to complete their coursework—a number estimated to be between 1,000 and 2,500 students statewide—will lose their chance to earn a diploma. Some of these students did not have access to needed technology for remote learning; others had to care for younger siblings or work to support their families when their parents abruptly lost their jobs.

The students aging out in June 2020 are disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners:

  • Approximately three-quarters (74%) of students aging out are Black or Latinx, though Black and Latinx students comprise less than 45% of the total high school population in New York State;
  • Almost half (47%) of all students aging out have disabilities; and
  • One in three students aging out is learning English as a new language. 

“The young people aging out of school in two weeks are the same student populations who have been hardest hit by the pandemic itself and by the challenges of online learning,” said Ashley Grant, a Supervising Staff Attorney at Advocates for Children of New York and Coordinator of the statewide Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma. “COVID has already devastated Black and Latinx communities. It shouldn’t take away students’ chance to earn a high school diploma too.”

The brief calls on the New York State Education Department to issue guidance directing districts to allow all students aging out of school without a diploma to return to high school next year—a recommendation echoed by more than 100 organizations in a recent letter. Unless the State takes action, these young adults will be forced to leave school and enter a labor market in which nearly one in five Americans without a high school degree is unemployed.

“Students who need a sixth or seventh year to graduate have struggled in the past, overcome obstacles, and want to finish high school because they know how important a diploma is for their future,” said Deanna Wallace, who graduated from Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn at age 19 and now mentors middle and high schoolers who are over-age for their grade level. “After all their years of hard work, the State has two weeks to act to keep their dream alive.” 

View the press release [PDF]
View the policy brief [PDF]
Read the letter [PDF]